It’s hard out here for a Tinsel Town A-Lister. Consider Ben Affleck, once a Miramax Golden Boy, leading man, Oscar-winning writer, and a lauded director of a Best Picture winner, no less. If you believe everything you read, you’d be convinced that Ben’s been having a tough time of late, the last 5 years being particularly troublesome. The struggle is apparently so real that The Way Back is being pegged as his own personal redemption story, his resurgence, his…way back, if you will. I’m not exactly sure how far a ways back he is supposed to be coming, considering this half a decade includes a few appearances as Batman, another directorial feature, and a handful of starring roles, but apparently a Sadfleck meme and tabloid pictures of a bad back tattoo are enough to persuade the general public that someone’s life is in tatters. Whilst this perception may not exactly reflect reality, it certainly adds some much needed flavor to the narrative around a film that would otherwise be completely unremarkable.
The Way Back sees Affleck taking on the role of Jack Cunningham, a former high-school basketballer who has hit the Hollywood version of rock-bottom: forced to scratch out a meager living as a blue-collar worker. Cunningham’s also an alcoholic—again, Hollywoodized, as his shower beers, sneaky flask filling, and constant rotation of cold brews out of a fully-stocked fridge would seem like fairly standard practice to your average Australian. His cycle of sanitized self-destruction is disrupted when he is offered the head coaching position of an under-performing Catholic school basketball team. Cunningham takes on the position reluctantly, and, unless your cognitive function has been severely impaired by a lifetime of relentless alcohol abuse, you can tell right from the jump exactly where things are headed from here.
The most sobering aspect of The Way Back is just how little it deviates from the well-worn playbooks of various sports-related redemption stories that have come before. Its sentimental predictability will no doubt be of comfort to some, but I was stunned by how trite and hackneyed this tale turned out to be. The reluctance to test the limitations inherent to the genre is blatant, leaving no question that the constraints are entirely self-imposed. I had desperately hoped that The Way Back would do better than to reiterate false dichotomies, but instead it reinforces them. The old sports coach adage “It’s not about whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game” is completely ignored in the construct of this experience. When it finally does attempt to switch the play, it’s overbearingly mawkish and feels like a cynical attempt to generate further emotional heft. Regardless, it comes far too late, with the shot clock having already expired.
The film pays the usual amount of Hollywood lip-service to Cunningham’s alcoholism, the safest addiction that can be afforded in a story this toothless. That much of Cunningham’s emotional turmoil is demonstrated purely through the act of him drinking illustrates how shallow and self-serving this depiction of an alcoholic actually is. It never seeks to explore the condition beyond the surface level, and becomes yet another aspect of the film that feeds into a very binary view of how the world works. There was ample opportunity to explore all the uncomfortable complexities of life, human nature, sport, and how these things can intertwine, and how this can actually matter, but The Way Back only manages to fumble in the clutch.
Much has already been made of Ben Affleck’s performance, but I didn’t see the same artful expression of full-court dominance that others have applauded. This wasn’t His Airness, under a cloud of injury, posting up 63 points against the Celtics in the play-offs. This is Affleck in warm-up mode, practicing lay-ups and sinking a handful of no pressure free-throws. He’s not missing many shots, but there’s nothing challenging about the material he’s taking on, and, in fact, the hammy script ends up doing him a disservice. He’s by far the best thing about The Way Back, but I couldn’t help shaking the feeling that I was watching Jordan play with the Washington Wizards instead of leading the formidable ‘90s Chicago Bulls.
Whether or not you will enjoy this film may depend on what type of sports fan you are. Do you watch purely for the love of the game itself, or are you heavily invested in the trials and tribulations of your chosen team? If you’re the former, you may well be disappointed by the lack of form and energy in the playing group and disheartened by the predictably of a result known well before the tip-off. If you fit in the latter, this could be your idea of a good time—an opportunity to replay that underdog championship run, the surprise of victory or defeat less important than the comfort of living nostalgia. I’d personally hoped that The Way Back might’ve injected a fresh spin into a played out genre, but I found it to be running the same old drills. It’s a time out for me.